Photo by Joao Guerreiro on Pexels
January 18, 2023

How can you stop the spread of so many sub-brands?

Do the sub-brands of your nonprofit reflect your brand strategy and help you engage audiences, or do they cause confusion and limit participation? Join co-director, Farra Trompeter, and creative director, Claire Taylor Hansen, as they discuss how to use sub-brands strategically.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to talk about a topic near and dear to many of our hearts, “How can you stop the spread of so many sub-brands?” Why do sub-brands run so rampant in nonprofits? We’re going to dig into this today.

Farra Trompeter: You know, brand architecture, sub-brands, it’s something we think a lot about at Big Duck. A few years ago we wrote an ebook called “Brand architecture: Strategies to strengthen your nonprofit’s family of programs, events, and initiatives.” If you haven’t already taken a look at that ebook, I encourage you to review it. You can find a link to it in the show notes. But simply, if you’re just entering into this conversation, brand architecture is really a strategy for organizing and expressing the relationships of your organization’s programs, events, initiatives, and the primary brand. We have a lot of podcasts and articles on our website about brand architecture, and really, at the end of the day, it’s about helping brands achieve an organizational structure and have clarity.

Farra Trompeter: I’m going to talk today with Claire Taylor Hansen, our creative director at Big Duck, who recently wrote a blog post called “Stop competing with yourself: How to prevent the creation of too many sub-brands,” and again, that’s the topic we will get into today.

Farra Trompeter: But before we dive in, let me tell you a little bit about Claire. Claire, who uses she/her pronouns, has been at Big Duck for almost seven years. And in addition to leading our team of designers and writers, Claire does a lot of speaking and writing that provoke new ways of thinking about branding. Before she started at Big Duck, Claire worked as an in-house designer for Brooklyn Botanic Garden and The Public Theater as well as working as an independent designer for many nonprofit organizations, including Urban Green Council, the San Francisco Botanic Garden, and Idealist. Claire lives in Toronto with her spouse and two adorable children, and also adorable fur baby named Blanche, our office mascot when we were back in the office. And Claire has actually been on the podcast several times before, including episodes investigating whether your nonprofit needs a new logo and if you should digitize your brand guide. [Spoiler: you should]. Anyway, we will link to both of those episodes in the transcript, and you can always get them on our website at Well, without further ado, Claire, welcome back to the podcast.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Thanks, Farra, I’m happy to be here.

Farra Trompeter: You know at Big Duck we talk a lot about developing communications and brands that focus on engaging your audiences, and in that vein, I just want to zoom out and start with identifying the problem of having too many sub-brands. Isn’t it a good thing to have lots of different programs and initiatives that target the communications and look and develop a brand for each? Why is that a problem, Claire?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yeah, it is a great thing to have many programs and events. That probably means you’re a healthy nonprofit that’s doing well. What we’re talking about here is the brands of those different programs. The brands of those different events and initiatives. So again, programmatically, it’s great to be broad, but sub-brands can be challenging. So what’s problematic is when nonprofits overly differentiate each of those different initiatives at the expense of their overall organizational brand recognition. So, a good metaphor might be not seeing the forest’s brands or the tree’s brands. So if you’re trying to grow awareness and affiliation of your overall organization, your overall entity, and most are, if you’re differentiating the family of sub-brands, each of your different initiatives and events and programs, too much, it can be a liability. So it makes it hard for the audiences to recognize you, and when they’re participating in each of those different touchpoints of the organization, they may be not seeing the connections between them. And it may inhibit them from giving to you again, getting you more closely tied to the overall organization, taking different actions, and more.

Farra Trompeter: So I want to just underscore what you said a minute ago, “Having too much differentiation in your family of sub-brands can be a liability.” What do you mean by differentiation? Because I see a lot of nonprofits with logos for their sub-brands that use colors within the same brand palette. Is that a good thing?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yes and no. So I’m going to get a little bit in with my designer hat on here. You may be using your nonprofit’s brand colors and brand palette, but externally, audiences don’t know you that well. Internally, your comms team, your designers, you live and breathe your nonprofit’s brand, your color palette. So, you might think that explorations with that color palette and that typography can feel like creating an affiliated family of brands. But repetition and consistency are really the keys to brand recognition. So, if you play around with your brand too much and develop discreet and unique different identities and logos for a run or walk, and they have slightly different typography, slightly different icons, but they’re still using your brand colors, it’s actually going to kind of detract from your overall brand recognition. And it’s going to be unlikely that folks will really fully recognize you or fully understand that it’s all part of one unified brand. It makes it more complicated for audiences, and it’s ultimately often better for your brand just to simply use your main logo, your primary logo, for more of your programming.

Farra Trompeter: I think you’re also reminding us that, again, your visual system isn’t just your logo or your colors, it’s also your typography, your approach to imagery, your use of icons and visualizations. And so when we’re thinking about it altogether, we can’t just pull one element apart and think that by using that we’re bringing consistency and recognition. We need to think about the whole.

Claire Taylor Hansen: That’s totally right.

Farra Trompeter: I’ve read articles, in fact, I’ve probably read some of them on our website, that have said sub-branding or doing too many sub-brands is actually one of the main problems getting in the way of nonprofits’ ability to communicate. And I’m just curious, why is this so rampant? Why are there so many sub-brands? Why are there so many songs about rainbows? And why do we have so many posts and podcasts about brand architecture, Claire?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yeah, it’s a really simple explanation. I think it’s because nonprofits evolve organically. So, you may get a grant, you may merge with another nonprofit, so then, moving one foot in front of the other, organic and steady growth you evolve. And so it’s very rare that nonprofits have the budget, the capacity, the ability to kind of holistically do brand check-ups to make sure that they’re completely efficient in how they’re using their brand. And so with that organic and opportunistic growth, your brand architecture can evolve in sort of a more step-by-step manner. And that brand architecture, it’s not fixed. Your services, your programs, even your locations, your initiatives, all of that add up to your brand. And that’s constantly evolving in the nonprofit sector. Because again, because of various different external factors. So, today’s solution with how you’re organizing your brand will look really different from five years down the road, 10 years down the road.

Claire Taylor Hansen: So for example, right now, Big Duck, we started a podcast a few years ago. Or you might, in this pandemic world, open a location or not open a location and go remote. You may introduce new programs depending on what’s going on in the world. Start hosting a gala for the first time. And so when you start a new initiative or a new program for the very first time, rather than stopping for a moment, thinking, “Okay, does this need a unique identity?” Often, the way to get energy and attention for that new moment in time is to create a new brand. And so then, in essence, through that organic growth, often nonprofits have created, ultimately, what is a new face for the brand.

Claire Taylor Hansen: And so, once again, circling back, we really feel, and we’ve seen with our clients that when brands are communicating the same personality, reflecting the organization’s vision and mission, often there’s more cohesion, and there’s less, kind of, different facets, different expressions, different visual expressions and verbal expressions for all those different sub-brands or initiatives. And so we usually find that nonprofits have evolved to a point where there’s too many faces of the diamond, too many facets. And that can mean lost opportunities to make a cohesive and coordinated impact. So, we often find it’s a good exercise to ask yourself if audiences are understanding all those different connections between your programs and events. And also on the flip side ask is one initiative or one program or one event maybe having a little bit too much of a life of its own and could be diluting your brand recognition and eroding an opportunity to kind of think of your organization in a more holistic way, build trust and community with you as a whole.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, you mentioned personality, which ties back to our brand strategy work, and for organizations for whom we get to do branding work that have a lot of sub-brands, we often also do brand architecture strategy work. In many of those cases, we bring forth the philosophy “less is more; simpler is better,” but there are times when we do say, “Hey, you know what? This initiative does make sense to be maybe a little less connected to the primary brand and maybe have a little bit of a life of its own.” So I’m just wondering, Claire, on the flip side, when does it make sense for a nonprofit to have a unique logo or sub-brand? And why is this something we see so often?

Claire Taylor Hansen: I would say just, a caveat, 90% of the time when we work with a nonprofit, we often find that more consolidation is better. But as you said, there are definitely very clear reasons why having a unique brand or a more unique brand – because all of this is kind of in a spectrum. It’s an evolving gradient of how closely they are connected to you. There can be really compelling reasons.

Claire Taylor Hansen: So, for example, our friends, we work with Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, we have the opportunity to work with them quite often. They work to end Duchenne, and they have an event that’s called Race to End Duchenne. And so for that, when we did their rebrand a few years ago, comprehensively, it was a great opportunity to come up with a really closely affiliated brand for that event that used their colors, used the typography, had a very clear connection point, but they had a really specific reason why that needed some unique branding. One of them is just the simple pragmatic reason of being on a t-shirt. You want to be able to see an icon that’s far away and be able to easily see folks that are running in the race. So there was a wide variety of reasons why that needed its own unique logo. Often, it’s really closely connected to the audiences for that event. Are they completely the same as the main organization? If they’re completely the same, often you don’t really need to differentiate that much. But often, if there’s a really clear segmentation of the audiences, sometimes there’s a compelling reason. So that’s a great reason is if there’s a very discreet pragmatic need like it’s a race or you have a very specific subset of the audience that isn’t really that connected to the main organization.

Claire Taylor Hansen: And then sometimes there’s pragmatic reality. So, you may have a special event that isn’t really going to ladder up to broad organizational awareness, and it’s for a specific group of folks, maybe some board members, and they want to make it feel kind of special. And there’s not going to be a real brand liability because it’s for these folks that are already very high on the ladder of engagement, already very closely connected to the organization, so it’s not really going to go out into the public and dilute your brand that much. That could be a compelling reason to have a small, kind of, more unique, more differentiated sub-brand. So there’s actually quite a few reasons or different scenarios in which a differentiated sub-brand might exist. We’ve actually written a blog post about it. My coworker, Sandy, wrote a really great rundown of four or five common reasons. So we’ll link to that in the show notes.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I believe that post is called “Using sub-brands strategically,” and we will link to that. And just to go back to the example with Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, in that when we did the new visual for Race to End Duchenne, we also renamed it. It used to be called Run for Our Sons, and we named it Race to End Duchenne to also build in, verbally, a stronger connection to the primary PPMD brand, and I think that when we’re looking at sub-brands, naming also is something to consider. And another thing, in addition to audiences, is also sort of, does this association with the primary brand, does it bring more people in? Does it add confusion? Does it become a barrier? So again, the idea of understanding audiences is very integral to this whole conversation.

Farra Trompeter: So Claire, another question. What does defining an organization’s brand architecture look like when we do that work? What are some of the questions that you and other members of our team usually ask ourselves and ask our clients when we’re really examining the structure of the primary brand to the program brands and come to our solutions?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Usually, when an organization comes to us and wants some help, they usually have at that point a pretty big collection of sub-brands or one very significant sub-brand. And they’re really kind of at a point where they’re not sure how to make changes, and they’re not seeing opportunities to make changes. And so what we do is we come in and we really take a clear look at the state of affairs. So we look at all of the different family of brands, this is a bit of a dry word, but it’s sort of like an audit. And then we map out, where are all these different brands showing up in the world? Do they all have their unique social channels? Do they all have unique URLs? Do they have unique logos? Who are the audiences for each of these programs? What are the communication goals for each of these audiences or each of these programs? So basically mapping it all out very clearly in a giant kind of chart or audit and then looking for ways to organize, to streamline, to simplify, and looking for points of connection.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Ultimately, when we do that work, there’s many different solutions. Each brand has a different reason for existing in the world, and so there’s no one-size-fits-all cleanup for a family of brands, but often we find that we’re moving each individual initiative closer to brand unity. So, it’s often we’re letting the main brand of the organization do more of the talking. So, nine times out of 10, the key to getting more audience awareness, and more clarity, is often to sunset out a lot, if not all, competing brand entities for sub-brands and programs that have cropped up organically over time.

Claire Taylor Hansen: And then when we’re done with that work, when we’ve kind of organized everything said, “Okay, these four should have new names that are more clearly linked to your organization. These five should no longer have their own logos. These two brands should have logos that are very similar to one another, and they look nearly identical to the main organization.” Whatever that map of solutions looks like. When we’re done with that, then we need to create clear guidelines about when unique branding is warranted. Because again, as we said, your brand is evolving over time, so you’re going to have an opportunity in a year or two where you could have a new initiative or a new program. So the idea is to build in solutions that can go forward into the future. And often the way we do that is we have a few kind of leading questions that are really helpful to determining if you need your own brand differentiation, either the verbal or visual. And so we create these kind of parameters and they’re a bit of a kind of like a choose-your-own adventure with strategic questions. And the answers to those questions point towards key decisions for naming, for colors, for creative choices that could or could not differentiate that unique brand.

Claire Taylor Hansen: An example of some of those questions we come up with are, “Who are the key audiences for this sub-brand or program? Is the audience distinct from who you’re trying to reach now?” And the answer to that is, if the program has basically the same audience as your organization, then often you don’t need a unique brand for that. You can just use your regular logo and maybe a unique name. And then another big question that’s kind of pointing you towards the right solution is, “To what extent should audiences engaging with this sub-brand or program or initiative clearly understand the relationship to your organization?” So, if you want audiences that are participating in that program or attending that event to see them as intrinsically linked or unified, you often don’t want to have unique branding. You don’t want folks to engage with one part of you and think that it’s separate. You want to build connections and community throughout your organization. So, those types of questions can be really helpful to circle back to as you grow and evolve.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I think those questions are really valuable. I hope folks out there are reflecting on that. I also always love to give other things people can do to really bring the podcast home to their organization. And Claire, I’m just wondering if you have any other tips or things people can do if they’re trying to assess if, in fact, they have too many sub-brands.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yeah, I came up with kind of a fun exercise that I thought folks could do internally with their comms teams, and I wrote a blog post about it on our website, and it’s called, “When you know you’ve got a brand architecture problem: An exercise.” Potentially, I could have thought of a more creative name, but it’ll be easy to find. We’ll link to it as well. I thought of kind of an activity. So, what you could do is first, an audit. Conduct your own audit. So list, literally list, all of your organization’s sub-brands, programs, initiatives, and events. And when you’re doing that, there may be things that, think with an external lens on. So when you’re working internally as staff at a nonprofit, you may think, “Oh, well, our weekly newsletter, that’s not a program, that’s not an event.” But if you’re differentiating that newsletter too much, if it has its own unique name, its own unique logo, and then folks in your organization are forwarding it to other people, that’s a missed opportunity to build unity, build a unified touchpoint with your organization. So really cast your net wide and think about anything that could be perceived as a brand, even down to your swag. So, are there things that you’re making where if someone that was newer to your organization encountered it, they wouldn’t really understand who you were because it had its own look, its own name, its own logo, whatever the reason? So, create a long list.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Then, create a visual snapshot of each one of those materials. So, you could do this on Google Docs, or you could do this in person. So just grab one thing from each of those different programs or initiatives. Then, either physically lay them out or use a brainstorming tool like Google Jamboard or Google Docs or anything, and just kind of tile them all to create kind of like a broad swath of all of those different family of brands. And then invite all of your colleagues in your comms team or your closest collaborators to just kind of look and reflect and absorb what you’re seeing.

Claire Taylor Hansen: And then circle back to some of those questions we offered earlier. Some questions that you could ask when you’re kind of looking at that survey were, “If you weren’t in the know, would you immediately understand that these materials were all part of your organization?” Another question is, “Which of these materials have their own unique logo?” And again, by unique logo, that could mean even a variation on your main organization logo. So literally anything that is not exactly your organization’s logo. A third question would be, “Do any of these materials use a unique typeface?” So again, as Farra mentioned earlier, brands, it’s not just about the logo and it’s not just about the color palette, it’s also about how you use photography. It’s about how you use typography, it’s about the tone and voice and style, the words you’re using, and the personality that’s coming across. So sometimes you might be differentiating your sub-brand in different ways. And so ask yourself, “Are any of these kind of differentiated beyond the logo?” And so in that vein, “Do they all have the same style of photography as the larger organization?” And then once you’ve kind of asked yourselves some of those leading questions, you can take a moment and reflect. If they’re all really distinct or if you don’t see a lot, if you’re not happy with the strategy in how they’re all relating to each other or connecting to each other, then you have a brand architecture problem.

Claire Taylor Hansen: So, as we’ve said before, sometimes visual distinction or verbal distinction is purposeful and intentional and strategic and is laddering up to serving your mission and aligning with your vision and is helpful in reaching the folks that you’re trying to reach and achieve the goals you’re trying to achieve. So sometimes visual distinction is purposeful, but we often find that it’s an organic result of the nonprofit sector of having mergers and grants and wonderful opportunities, and it isn’t benefiting the organization as a whole.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I mean, you’re touching on a lot of what we talk about, that Sarah wrote about, Sarah Durham, our founder, in the book “Brandraising,” this idea of accidental branding, which might have led to our entire organization or to now this family of brands we have. And again, if you’re just trying to wrap your head around this issue, I really encourage you to check out our ebook on brand architecture. You can also listen to previous podcasts, blog posts we’ve written, or reach out to us if you’re trying to figure out, “Do I have a brand architecture problem? Is this something I should examine?” Happy to explore it with you. You can always drop a note to [email protected] or reach out to us through our website. Thanks for listening, and Claire, thank you so much for being here.

Claire Taylor Hansen: It was my pleasure.